A Spirit Alive: Learning a Culture Through Religion Continued…

The Vatican in Rome. The Great Mosque of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Golden Temple in India.

Everywhere you travel, you’re likely to find a religious site or house of worship.

Moreover, you’re likely to encounter the values and norms of that predominant religion, demonstrated in various ways.

Whether it’s the closure of shops on Fridays, Saturdays, or Sundays, or the style of clothing worn, religion influences both the visual landscape and the society at large.

Despite the best efforts from some atheistic governments to destroy religion, belief has remained alive and well in the hearts and minds of many.

One example of this is in Albania.

Albania Cracks Down

Albanian Dictator Envers Hoxa tried to forcefully remove religion, forbidding rituals, destroying churches, and banning religious symbols.

I, myself, visited Albania as a journalist after Hoxa’s regime fell.

While there, I happened upon a church that the regime had converted into a “house of culture” in the mountains bordering Yugoslavia.

Someone had gone through and overturned the tombstones, but you could still see crosses littered in the stone.

But what really astounded me were the professions of faith written inside the church.

Culture and religion are so inextricably intertwined that not even a ruthless dictator could kill their spirit.

Religion is something acquired during primary socialization; it is as intimately part of us as language or diet.

Whether or not a person has faith or considers themselves religious, some of their behaviors, norms, and values are inevitably still grounded in the predominant religion of their society, regardless of secularism. Even secular societies may still celebrate Easter and Christmas.

In effect, religion influences everything, from art and history to government and education.

Clash of Civilizations

Political scientist Samuel P. Huntington used religion as a major criterion when identifying the civilizations in his landmark book, Clash of Civilizations.

He looked at Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Orthodox, and Sinic civilizations (the East Asian cultural sphere).

Although GLOBE research divided 59 countries into cultural dimensions, none of which were religious, they received similar results to Huntington, which demonstrates how the behaviors, values, and norms of a culture are defined by religion.

8 in 10 people identify with a religious group, according to PEW forum.

Our societal personalities, traditions, lifestyles, and perspectives are deeply rooted in religion. 

In this way, throughout history, societal rules and regulations have been dependent upon religion to help keep society in line. With religion as a driving factor, these rules are not simply being imposed by Man, but rather by the divine.

Next week, we’ll take a look at some research analyzing the interaction between culture and religion.

The Hospitality Index: A Hypothetical Example of Ethnocentricity

Not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall in ’91, I traveled as a journalist to a region near the former Yugoslavian border of Albania. In many of the remote, mountainous villages to which I traveled, I was the first foreigner seen by locals since the Germans of WWII.

As I explored the region, one of the impressions I had about the people was that they were unconditionally hospitable. They treated this stranger, this foreigner, as an esteemed guest, preparing generous meals for me, despite not having a lot themselves.

One village had only three sheep, and they killed one of them to serve me, though I attempted to discourage such a sacrifice on my account.

Hospitality exceeding no bounds was their cultural norm.

Not only did this manifest in the meals they served, but also in the accommodation. In each house, there was a guest room, fitted with a bed to welcome visitors at any time.

While this region isn’t alone in this cultural norm, as I’ve been so graciously treated with such hospitality in other parts of the world as well, one conclusion that I’ve come to in my travels is this:

Hospitality is best wherever there is no telephone.

Lack of Connection Improves Quality of Connection

People often arrive unannounced to places with no telephone. This may be one reason cultural norms require those who live in remote places to be prepared to accommodate at any time.

The pop-in is inevitable (Seinfeld would hate to be a member of these cultures). Hosts must provide guests a place to stay and a bite to eat last-minute because they have nowhere else to go. And these hosts are more than happy to.

In such open-door cultures, active hospitality – and lavish hospitality, at that – is adopted and valued.

Ethnocentricity’s Bias in the Reverse

Last week, we talked about ethnocentricity: the innate bias we have about our culture being “right” and another being “wrong” and evaluating cultures according to our own values.

My personal example is one case in which ethnocentricity’s bias might work in the reverse.

Sometimes, we see other’s values and norms as more “right” than our own. This may be one of those cases.

Most Westerners would never think to invite themselves over to a neighbor’s home, nor would they expect to accommodate a stranger. Even showing up on an acquaintance’s doorstep without a moment’s notice would be questionable.

Some Westerners might even choose to stay at a hotel rather than with family or friends when they’re visiting. Not only because they don’t want to impose on another’s space, but likely because they’d prefer their own space and privacy.

But most Westerners would surely see the value in such open-door hospitality. It’s universally a beautiful thing.

In Albania – and in other world regions that are less connected – there is no imposition and space is not valued as it is in the West. It would be a dishonor to the people if you rejected their hospitality.

Ethnocentricity in Albania

As I’ve highlighted, hospitality is a deeply entrenched value in these regions.

With that bit of background in mind, imagine Albanian researchers studying cross-cultural differences.

The researchers, no doubt, would consider the hospitality-index as an important cultural categorization.

Generosity and accommodation are the glue that holds society together in their minds, allowing communal ties and free travel.

Should they research other country’s hospitality norms and values, they would find other’s hospitality doesn’t meet the same standard as theirs.

They might see that in some countries unconditional hospitality is restricted to those one knows well. Strangers can find somewhere else to eat and sleep.

In other countries, only family members are provided with hospitality.

And in some, forget it. You have to find your own accommodation.

During their research, the Albanians might then conclude that their own country is on the higher end of the spectrum when it comes to the hospitality index. And they would view this as a positive thing, as their values are validated.

This is just one example of how ethnocentrism might influence research. It comes naturally to most. Even professional researchers and experts in the field, no matter how objective they attempt to be, will inevitably reveal their own values when evaluating other cultures.